By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, April 6, 2006
Few things are more satisfying to a reviewer or a diner than to find a neighborhood restaurant with good food, a pleasant ambiance and prices that make visiting often within budget.
Idylwood Grill and Wine Bar, off Pimmit Drive in Falls Church, is just the kind of place every neighborhood should be fortunate enough to have. Tucked in an unimposing strip shopping center, behind the Whole Foods Market on Route 7, Idylwood Grill is in what owner Hedi Ben-Abdallah describes as a B location in an A market. You can’t see the restaurant from Route 7, but once you’ve been there, you will never forget the directions.
Ben-Abdallah, a veteran of the Ritz-Carlton on Massachusetts Avenue NW in the District and most recently the manager of the private Georgetown Club, has been in the Washington restaurant trade for more than two decades. His six-month-old restaurant is the culmination of his longtime desire to run his own place.
The two-level space is inviting and understated, with arches and reddish-gold walls that suggest the Mediterranean and Ben-Abdallah’s native Tunis. Simple bentwood chairs surround tables clothed in orange and yellow. A few steps down from the main dining room is a wine bar, featuring low stools and tables along one side and a long banquette against the other. Photographs of Mediterranean locales and wine racks are the main decoration in the two areas.
Chef Marvin Hernandez, who worked with Ben-Abdallah at the Georgetown Club, has fashioned a menu that is exceptionally savory, combining flavors that echo the Mediterranean decor.
Meals begin with a basket of flat bread (called Barbary bread) baked at Mama Lavash’s next door (no connection between the two businesses) and a bottle of green-tinged and exceptionally fruity extra virgin olive oil. For starters, it’s hard to beat the merguez (lamb sausage) with navy beans, accented with tomato harissa sauce (hot chili paste). The gentle fire of the sauce is a perfect complement to the mild sausages.
Then there’s the daily soup, recently a leek and potato combination made with a gentle tomato base rather than the usual chicken stock or cream. It was delicious.
Deep-fried calamari has become a menu item as ubiquitous as Caesar salad and molten chocolate cake. Idylwood has its own excellent version. For a change, try the sauteed Idyl-Calamari, rings of calamari that are almost buttery soft, presented in a beurre blanc with herbs and shallots.
Main course salads are my choice for lunch. The veal scaloppine arugula salad is topped with a mound of peppery arugula dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. The match was made in heaven.
The chicken breast spinach salad is just as good. The paillard of grilled chicken is moist and flavorful, and the accompanying spinach, pine nuts and tomatoes are fresh and tangy.
Pastas are another good choice. The same type of grilled chicken breast that is in the salad tops a generous serving of al dente penne with a bright-tasting pesto sauce. A daily special of shrimp and scallops with linguine was light and filling at the same time. The linguine was perfectly cooked, and the creamy marinara sauce was refreshingly light.
Variations on many of those dishes appear on the dinner menu. For example, the veal scaloppine is served with capers and butter sauce and accompanied by very good mashed potatoes and a melange of vegetables — including carrots, snow peas and zucchini — that are still crunchy, fresh and buttery smooth.
The dinner menu also features steaks — a filet mignon and a New York strip. The filet was tender and flavorful, with a rich red wine mushroom sauce that could rival that of many big-name establishments.
The only dessert made in-house is the creme caramel, which has a smooth and light texture. The cheesecake is also very good, as is the chocolate layer cake.
The second half of the operation is the wine bar, where one can sample Ben-Abdallah’s well-chosen wines. Almost all the four dozen or so selections are available by the glass. You’ll find interesting wines, such as a selections from Friuli in Italy and New Zealand, that aren’t on every wine list in town.
The service is pleasant and accommodating, as befits a neighborhood haunt of gem quality.